Visual Aesthetic Perception and Judgement Of Urban Streetscapes

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Visual Aesthetic Perception and Judgement Of Urban Streetscapes

attention. This paper examines the visual effects arising from contemporary urban transformationpractices.2. Research designA framework for the study is developed out of the literature in the field of environmental aesthetics.Cuthbert (2006 p. 174) posits that an aesthetically pleasing experience is one that provides pleasurablesensory experiences, a pleasing perceptual structure and pleasurable symbolic associations. Thisdefinition provides a useful guide as to the different levels of aesthetic perception that are necessary tobe able to judge a scene or setting. Aesthetic experience can therefore be conceptualised in threelevels; sensory perception, cognition and meaning.The two most important formal factors affecting judgement are order and visual interest that tendstoward ambiguity and complexity (Rapoport and Kantor 1967, Nasar 1994). Gestalt psychology helpsus to understand the innate human desire to resolve visual stimuli into ordered patterns. Coherence ofoverall building shape, patterns developed in building facades and strong compositional elements suchas verandahs are but some of the formal characteristics that can enhance sense of order in a scene.Stimulation of interest must be managed to ensure the mind is not taxed in visual perception. Nasar(1994) notes that moderate stimulus levels will generate positive aesthetic experience until reaching alevel where pleasure begins to diminish. The built environment provides stimulation of interest atthree scales, which are conceptualised as silhouette (complexity of the outline), form articulation(three dimensional modelling) and surface texture (Stamps 2000). Surface interest can be generatedby variations in colour as well as in textured patterns. Colour is of particular interest as it canstimulate aesthetic pleasure at subconscious as well as cognitive levels of perception.Environmental stimuli are also processed and aligned with mental templates that develop throughpersonal experience. This is how we come to understand that a rectangular plane recessed in anopening in a vertical surface is a door. Cognitive processes help us understand the environment andaffect aesthetic judgement, particularly when we assign value to the derived meanings (Weber 1995).This can best be understood by the example of a building that is clearly recognisable as a church. Themeanings and values that the viewer may associate with this typology can be strongly positive and soinfluence aesthetic judgement. Powerful meanings attach to the way we understand the environmentor a building to be used. Not only do people evaluate the nature of the activities they understand totake place within, they are also influenced by the degree to which they can imagine themselves able toparticipate in those activities. Therefore public buildings can have very positive associationalmeanings for many people. Construction materials, standard of detailing and standard of maintenancecan convey messages about the status of the building owner or the way a building would feel to beinside (Alcock 1993). With this background, informed by the literature in the field of environmentalaesthetics, an analytical framework is derived (figure 1).


headings of the analytical framework; visual interest, sense of order, communication of human scale,evidence of human activity and maintenance. The tool uses a ten point scale to enable greaterdistinction between the numeric values generated. A survey questionnaire was developed around thesame list of attributes, refined to limit the time commitment by respondents.123456Figure 2: Scenes 1 to 6, running from top to bottom. The scenes were selected to provide a range ofbuilt form characteristics that aesthetic judgement could respond to.


combined score was that of Scene 6 (85), which these findings also reveal to be the scene favouredoverall by most people by a very wide margin. This comparison may support Berlyne’s (1974)suggestions that too much stimulation – in this case as form complexity – leads to negative hedonicvalues. Indeed, this could be a case approaching sensory overload. However, another interpretation isthat the scoring apparatus requires adjustment to reflect relative impact on judgement by complexityand perceptual order, as the mean scores for pleasantness (2.78 on scale of 5) and overall preference(2.66) situate Scene 1 somewhere in the middle of the other five. None of the categories or individualscores in the evaluation is currently weighted but this certainly warrants more study in a follow-up tothis research.Table 2: Comparison of pleasantness scores for each of the six scenes, expressed as percentages.StronglydislikeSomewhatdislikeneutral Somewhat like Strongly likeScene 1 18.2 38.0 12.0 24.0 7.8Scene 2 13.0 40.6 26.6 17.2 2.6Scene 3 14.6 22.4 26.0 32.8 4.2Scene 4 21.6 26.3 26.8 19.5 5.8Scene 5 21.6 35.8 26.8 12.6 3.2Scene 6 3.1 4.2 10.4 46.9 35.4One of the lowest scoring scenes in terms of visual interest was Scene 6, where all five buildings,although articulated in façade treatment by way of fenestration, are generally of similar shape, heightand position. Each building in the scene is distinguished mainly through colour. Yet the scene hasthe highest approval rating of any of the scenes presented, with the mean preference score registeringsome 34% higher than Scene 1 (4.07 compared with 2.66). This provides further reinforcement of thenotion that perceptible order is the key component of a pleasing aesthetic experience (Weber 1995,Smith 2003).In addition to having the highest score for order; Scene 6 also led the way in the categories of humanscale and human activity. A high score in the former category is enabled by a nearly transparent andfully public ground floor, both in terms of physical accessibility during business hours and visualaccessibility throughout the day. The lowest scores for human scale and human activity wereachieved by Scene 4, which is the public face of a large private shopping centre. Contributingstrongly to this result is the lack of openings at upper levels. Openings provide opportunities toenvisage the types of activities that may occur within. The designers have suggested clues by way ofexternal balcony elements but these are all inaccessible and several of the glazed areas that thebalconies sit in front of have been blanked out. This is to be expected, in terms of orientation of theshop to the internal mall. Effectively the wall facing the street is the back wall and usually used forstorage. More than 46% of the respondents found this scene to be unpleasant. Some focus groupparticipants voiced concerns over perceptions of scale and activity in this building, expanding on the


stimulation that piques their interest, but only up to a point, and underlying this should be a clearsense of order. The research confirms the majority of theories, both speculative and empirical, onvisual perception; visual stimulation tempered by order is preferred. Secondly, people seek to projectthemselves into a scene to understand how they themselves would use the buildings and spaces. Thisrefers to another level of perception, where meaning and value are assigned to the image. It seems themost important, perhaps universally accessible, aspect of meaning is that of use.It appears that efforts to guide new development into appropriate areas should be directed atencouraging designs that enhance levels of visual stimulation in a setting. However, as the researchalso reveals that too much complexity is poorly received, interventions should look for clues in thesetting to which the new form can relate. Wilful, self-referential and contrary buildings are nottolerated in the main as the public, including design professionals, also seek ordered relationshipsacross a scene. New buildings should be visually accessible to enable use and activity to beunderstood and engaged with. This is particularly relevant at ground floor level, as the research alsoshows that buildings that do not enable perceptions of public activity at this level are roundlydismissed. Conversely, settings that have publicly accessible ground floors are generally perceivedfavourably.ReferencesAlcock, A., 1993. Aesthetics and urban design. In Mcglynn, S. & Hayward, R. eds. Making betterplaces: Urban design now. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 147pp.Bentley, I., 1999. Urban transformations: Power, people and urban design London: Routledge.Berlyne, D.E. ed. 1974. Studies in the new experimental aesthetics: Steps toward an objectivepsychology of aesthetic appreciation, Washington D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation.Cabe, 2006. Design review. Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment 24pp.Carmona, M. & Tiesdell, S. eds. 2007. Urban design reader, Oxford, UK: Architectural Press.Ching, F., 2007. Architecture - form, space and order Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, Inc.Corbusier, L., 1987. The city of to-morrow and its planning (translation of urbanisme published 1929)New York: Dover Publications, Inc.Cuthbert, A.R., 2006. The form of cities, political economy and urban design Oxford, UK: BlackwellPublishing.Dovey, K., 2001. The aesthetics of place. In Cold, B. ed. Aesthetics, well-being and health. Aldershot,Hants: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., p. 93-101.


Groat, L., 1988. Contextual compatibility in architecture: An issue of personal taste? In Nasar, J.L. ed.Environmental aesthetics: Theory, research and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, p.228-257.Habraken, N.J., 1994. Cultivating the field: About an attitude when making architecture. Places, 9 (1),8-21.Nasar, J.L., 1994. Urban design aesthetics: The evaluative qualities of building exteriors. Environment& Behaviour, 26 (No. 3, May 1994), pp 377-401.Nasar, J.L., 1998. The evaluative image of the city Thousand Oaks, Calif. USA: Sage Publications.Portella, A.A., 2007. Evaluating commercial signs in historic streetscapes. Written Oxford BrookesUniversity.Rapoport, A., 1982. The meaning of the built environment : A nonverbal communication approachBeverly Hills, Calif.; London: Sage.Rapoport, A. & Kantor, R.E., 1967. Complexity and ambiguity in environmental design. Journal ofthe Institute of American Planners, 33, p 210 - 221.Reeve, A., Goodey, B. & Shipley, R., 2007. Townscape assessment: The development of a practicaltool for monitoring and assessing visual quality in the built environment. Urban Morphology, 11 (1),25-41.Rfac, 1994. What makes a good building? : An inquiry by the royal fine art commission London:Royal Fine Art Commission.Sanoff, H., 1991. Visual research methods in design New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.Smith, P.F., 2003. The dynamics of delight : Architecture and aesthetics London Routledge.Stamps, A.E., 2000. Psychology and the aesthetics of the built environment Dordrecht, TheNetherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers Group.Weber, R., 1995. On the aesthetics of architecture Aldershot: Avebury.

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